How can miscellaneous = mischief?

It’s the dreaded 999 code that can turn a project upside down.  The miscellaneous charge code into which all bad hours go can be the source of a great deal of upset and difficulty a project. contingency_300x172.jpg

In the timesheet business that we live in at HMS, we’ve see clients who have an unhealthy attachment to the 999 charge code.  When you just don’t know where those hours should go or you just don’t want to own up to how many hours you spent on some task or you know you shouldn’t have been doing that task and you need to put the hours somewhere or (and this is my favorite) you just can’t for the life of you, remember what you spent those hours on!  For all of these situations and a hundred more, there is the miscellaneous code.

We recommend that the catch-all miscellaneous code be used sparingly but if it is available at all, it carries such a powerful attraction that it is hard to resist.

Timesheets are not the only industry that has a miscellaneous category.  The last time I moved houses, we had the miscellaneous room we called the “room to be named later”.  Into that room went every single box that didn’t have a label, didn’t fit into another room or the carrier of just didn’t have enough energy or will power to carry it anywhere else.

In the project management business the miscellaneous charge is often called “contingency”.  In theory good project managers shouldn’t need any contingency.  After all, isn’t contingency just a way of saying “unplanned”?  How could a good project manager have anything that is unplanned?  Yet all good project managers tuck a little contingency into their plans somehow.  The very first employer I had in the project management industry back in 1982 was in the construction business.  He used the end-phase, called building commissioning to hide his contingency.  He would put a floor-by-floor dry-wall and painting phase near the end of the project.  It would be scheduled sequentially but Gerry always knew that if he was pressed for time right near the end, he could put 20 dry-wall and painting teams into the building simultaneously and magically get back on schedule.

The problem with all of these constructs is a lack of shared rules for using them.  In the timesheet business, we’ve often gone looking for the miscellaneous hours in a client’s timesheet, found an unconscionable number of them and recommended disabling the ‘999’ code until we can get a better handle on where those hours are being spent.  It generates some upset at first but it ultimately ends up with a stronger understanding of the business.

In the project management business, the most common problem with ‘contingency’ is everyone thinking they can use it.  Monte Carlo risk analysis is process that tries to take this very problem out of critical path scheduling where everyone thinks they have slack to work within but in fact, they are sharing it.

Is some slack a good thing?  Almost certainly but if this is a part of your management plan, make sure you have a solid process of how and when it will be used so that not everyone starts to take advantage of it.  If you don’t, like me, you might end up moving and finding every belonging you own has been put into one room of your new house!